Archive | July 2014

Leadership

Something that has been bothering me lately – well, not lately, but I’ve only just begun having time to really think about it – is a lack of recognition.

 

Now, I’m not an attention whore. I don’t train people to be recognized. I don’t work hard to be recognized. I do my job because I was raised and trained to give my best. I build myself to be as competent as possible in the execution of my duties because I was raised and trained to do so. I derive satisfaction from trainees achieving things they once believed impossible. 

 

However, I’d still like a measure of respect, although validation/vindication might be more accurate terms. I want to hear people recognize that I had a hand in their development. I want to be told that I am in fact good at my job. 

I can’t ask for this, though. I’ve always believed that respect is commanded, not demanded, and so I avoid being that guy who couldn’t earn respect and had to beg for it. Thus, in my mind, if people didn’t recognize that I was good at my job, I probably wasn’t.

 

I could be wrong, though. I know for a fact that several people who have passed through my training have improved wonderfully. I’ve seen them grow physically and mentally. I’ve guided their development and pushed them to new heights. While I cannot take full credit – a good deal of that will always go to the person him or herself, and his or her ability to take on a challenge – I know that I at least had a hand in it.

 

Meh. I suppose for now, an old code from my COCC days will have to suffice.

 

What Makes A Good Leader?
A leader is best
When people are least aware
Of his leadership,
Not so good when they
Acclaim and obey him blindly,
Worse when they despise him.
But of a good leader
Who talks little
When his work is done
And his aim fulfilled,
They will say:
“We did it ourselves.”

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Excuses, Excuses II: Pretenders Speak the Loudest

Any man who must say “I am the King” is no true king.”

The above quote was said by Tywin Lannister (excellently portrayed by Charles Dance) in the tenth episode of the third season of HBO’s Game of Thrones. It – or a version thereof – was probably originally in one of George R.R. Martin’s books, but having never read them, I wouldn’t know.

I was raised, taught, and trained to believe that actions speak louder than words. Our standards, our beliefs, and our abilities are made apparent by our accomplishments. The words we use to describe these must almost pale in comparison, lest we be taken for bags of bullshit and hot air.

This used to be irrelevant to me – not because I didn’t believe it, but because my absolute lack of motivation meant I couldn’t be bothered to achieve anything worth talking about.

Now that I actually have done things worth note, I have become far more critical of the people who talk the talk and the people who walk the walk, especially in my little part of the world of physical fitness and the instruction thereof.

I’ve met many people more than willing to discuss their “achievements”. These are played up until they seem the pinnacle of human ability, making the person behind them something to be admired and trusted.

I wonder, however, whether there is a correlation between the volume of the proclamations and the perception of the person regarding themselves. I am especially observant of trainers/coaches (although to be honest, many people who use the title are not, in my mind, true “coaches”) who are more willing to discuss their achievements in a way that downplays their weaknesses and makes their strengths seem all-important. Furthermore, I am particularly bothered when these people outright claim to be able to do things which they then completely fail to demonstrate.

Some time last year, a couple of us were working on bringing up pull-up numbers, if only because we found them lacking. I worked up to a max of 18, although I was better at multiple sets of relatively high volume (think 5-8 sets of 10-12). Someone we trained with claimed to be very good at pull-ups, which confused me because I’d never actually seen him working on them or any other strength exercise. When tested, the truth emerged: he barely managed 8 pull-ups before dropping from the bar. He shortly thereafter downplayed it by saying that since his focus lay on endurance runs and swimming, it wasn’t important for him to be able to do things like high volume pull-up sets. I am not arguing that logic; what I am against is that he made a claim that he proceeded to disprove before he attempted to make an excuse.

Another example would be a guy I met a couple of years ago who claimed to be a competitive powerlifter. At the time I was just getting into heavy lifting myself (the previous years had been spent in general conditioning and bodyweight strength training), so I was naturally interested in getting training tips. Imagine my dismay, then, when this supposed competitor could only claim a deadlift that barely scraped 150% of his body weight. Not only is this not a particularly impressive ratio (I have briefly written about this in the past), it was objectively a number I had already exceeded at that point – his 125kg versus my 140kg. I was genuinely surprised that the year or so of training he claimed to have already put in had not produced a result superior to what five or six months had done for me. Sure, you could say that his year was the only training he’d done so far, while I had technically already been training for about three years even if I hadn’t deadlifted that entire time. However, this sounds like a bullshit excuse – I don’t think I should ever enter a sport and shortly thereafter become better than someone who has been training for it for more than six months.

What bothered me was that no one had called this guy out on how little he could actually do. Instead, people congratulated him – and, I think, it was because he was quite good at making 150% seem like a great number. Hey, maybe it is – for a fifty-year-old man who has just started serious weight training. A twenty-year-old who has been strength-training for a year should have easily exceeded that.

It’s easy to make our pitiful “achievements” look good if we can talk fast enough. It’s about as easy to make our shortcomings look less significant. Personally, though, I think it would be a lot easier – and you’d look a lot less stupid in the long run – if you spent less time talking about how much you could do, and more time actually doing stuff worth noticing. The guy who claims he can do more than 10 pull-ups will always look stupid next to the guy who shows he can do 20. The person who claims to be successful will always look like a failure next to the one who by anyone’s standards, actually is.

Excuses, Excuses I: Fake Specificity

I’ve heard lots of people claim to avoid a certain exercise or training structure because it doesn’t fit their sport or particular physical goal. I have no inherent problem with this reasoning – heck, I even use it to explain why none of my runs ever go over 10km. There is considerable support for it: the ultramarathoner will not benefit from the mass gain caused by 10 sets of 10 front squats, and the powerlifter doesn’t need to run 42km. Sport is specific by nature; if it doesn’t fit the specific needs, you don’t need it.

My problem is when this legitimate reason becomes an excuse to avoid something difficult.

 

I have a friend who is into bodybuilding. At least, he says so – you wouldn’t know by looking at him, but that isn’t the point of this post. Anyway, he uses fairly traditional straight-out-of-Men’s-Health routines and exercises – 3 sets of 10, curls and rows, etc. One thing he avoids, for whatever reason, is having to work towards pull-ups. Despite the various types of curls, rows, and pull-downs he uses during Back and Biceps Day, he remains incapable of a single perfect pull-up. 

His rationale is that he doesn’t train for functional performance, so he doesn’t need to be able to do a pull-up.

 

At first glance, it seems a vaguely reasonable idea. Bodybuilders need a degree of muscle isolation that other sports don’t bother with. However, the pull-up is a fantastic exercise in this arena simply because of the number of muscles worked and the amount of weight being shifted. A perfect pull-up forces your back, biceps, and forearms to shift almost 100% of your body weight. For me, that would be close to 185lbs per pull. As I do sets of 8-10, each set has me shifting as much as 1850lbs. In comparison, doing a set of 10 bicep curls with 20lbs per arm means you’ve shifted 400lbs. Even if all of this was done with just your biceps and forearms, it pales in comparison.

Simply put, there has never been an elite bodybuilder who left pull-ups and variations thereof out of his program, and for damn good reason. Thus, the pull-up is not excluded because it doesn’t fit the goal.

 

Careful analysis – admittedly, perhaps more than many people are willing to undertake – of goals and methods is required to properly determine what must be cut away. Outdated or unproven reasons should be examined and discarded. In short, figure out what you’re talking about.

 

Now, I would rather assume that people simply need more information and help in the gathering thereof than consider the alternative, which is that people leave certain things out simply because they’re fully aware of what they suck at. That friend of mine may avoid pull-ups not because he isn’t aware of their value, but because the inability to perform even a single rep reminds him of how weak he is – especially given that he knows at least two of the girls I’ve trained can do sets of 3-5. It’s more comfortable to avoid that reminder of his shortcomings and craft an excuse for it later on. 

 

At this point, “It doesn’t fit my programming” is not a reason, but an excuse to avoid your weaknesses. This is, I think, one reason people are likely to fail, and a subset of the “I’m scared of difficulty” mentality. If you aren’t ready to explore, then you will not realize your full potential.

Compromise I: Marketing vs Fitness

I like working on a gym. I like having access to weights, TRXs, and foam rollers, and I particularly like being paid for it. I especially like – no, I love meeting people who are willing to set and achieve high standards through honest effort.

 

The problem is that most people aren’t like that.

 

A gym is a business. It needs income to survive, even if much of the start-up and development capital came from our own pockets. Thus, we have to spend considerable time and effort convincing people of the value of our product.

I definitely think there is sense in much of what we say, but one of the things that frustrates me is how much we need to work to avoid alienating people with words (or ideas, I suppose) such as “inadequate”, “weak”, and “lazy”. These, I feel, can accurately describe the physiques of many of our clients – and more important, they describe the mentality as well. Because we never – well, rarely – tell clients that they need a lot of improvement, they become convinced that they are either perfectly fine where they are, or are making progress when in fact they are stubbornly refusing to do so. Thus, the lazy pear-shaped mother thinks she is strong and hard-working, despite her inability to maintain a straight body when cranking out the half-rep high incline push-ups that she has being doing for years. The chubby “ultramarathoner” thinks she holds a high degree of strength endurance even though she has to give up half the time.

Another aspect is the refusal to push. One of my favorite clients is a 40-something-year-old father and lawyer who is willing to be challenged: he will attempt to shift the heaviest weight set out at least once per workout. However, once he determines that it is “too heavy” (I use quotation marks because 30kg squats should not be that difficult for a well-trained person who weighs more than twice that), he drops it and moves down with little or no flak. He is not forced to grind away at it and grow in strength, both mentally and physically. To me, this is a waste: this guy has the potential to be quite physically capable, but the general avoidance of pressure beyond what people are comfortable with, holds him back. We don’t want to risk losing his business – his two sons train with us as well – so we don’t do anything that might produce a negative effect in that area.

 

At what point does the marketing of the product exceed the quality of the product itself? Do the results of our training match the claims we make? Sure, we have some impressive students – the slim, quiet girl who can match many new guys at push-ups is one of my favorite examples – but many have not reached this level of capability. I thus wonder whether these few would have succeeded regardless of where they trained, which would invalidate our claim to produce fitter human beings.

 

I understand the necessity of marketing and client relations. I get that we need business to make money, especially because otherwise I don’t get paid. I still wonder how much more we could do for people if we weren’t shackled by that necessity. People can’t be scared. They can’t be alienated.

 

So how much can we actually challenge them, and how much will it mean when they meet those tiny challenges?